raising the american flag in cuba with kerry

Visiting Cuba: “Before the Americans Come”

The idea that change is around the corner for Cuba is widespread right now. The change itself is being predicted to happen any time between this year and ten years from now. But most Cubans and outsiders do expect grand changes to occur soon.


Indeed, there are twice as many Americans in Cuba today than there were just a year ago. But it’s not so much the Americans themselves that people are worried about as it is the idea that McDonald’s restaurants or long lines at museums will soon plague Cuban streets. Many ignore the fact that an increase in business and visitors would bring benefits to the Cuban people.

To visit Cuba under a U.S. Department of the Treasury license, one must travel under an arrangement of a full-time schedule of activities that fit within given guidelines. Visitors today, therefore, will not be sitting on a beach under a palm tree, but meeting Cubans and genuinely interacting with the people. In my opinion, this provides a richer experience, especially in the case of Cuba. The island has a unique history and diverse culture that is fascinating to explore, especially in the light of the landscape created through its affluent past and its subsequent development.

“I’d like to see Cuba before the American’s ruin it”
is a phrase on the lips of many current visitors to Cuba. Some of those visitors are American themselves.

When selecting your licensed trip to Cuba, you should read the necessary details and information carefully. Any aspect of Cuba that you wish to explore can be dealt with in depth or superficially. In the case of cigars, few organizations have access or knowledge that will facilitate any more than taking a basic tourist’s spin through a cigar factory.

The same is true for organizers offering music, art, or other educational trips. Read the website of the tour organizer to find out who you will speak to and what you will see. Will you simply see a concert, or will you meet with musicians and have a chance to jam? Will you visit a cigar factory, or will you eat lunch in a tobacco farm with the farmer over conversation?

Licensed (legal) Travel

It is illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists. Travel is permitted by the US government only for visitors who travel with a licensed provider or under an individual license. My company, Experience Cuban Culture (ECC), for example, takes Americans to Cuba under a Treasury Department license.

Many irresponsible “news” outlets have reported that Americans may travel freely to the beaches, or wherever they like in Cuba. On May 5, in regard to the question as to whether the sanctions on Cuba were still in place, the Treasury Department simply stated, “Yes, the Cuba embargo remains in place.” [From the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s “Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba”].

Unless you are a professional journalist, member of a licensed US university, or part of some other clearly licensed group, the best option for visiting Cuba under current regulations is to go under the auspices of an organization such as ECC in order to ensure that you are not breaking the law.

Cuba’s Perspective

So much of this discussion revolves around the laws of the United States. But the Cuban perspective is just as important and impactful in this discussion. Foreign citizens do not have rights to visit Cuba. We visit as guests of the powerful state and must follow the country’s rules during a visit to the island per se. It is surprising to many visitors that Cuban businesses and visitor sites are restrictive – of, for example, the taking of photographs, and only permit entrance to limited sections of those businesses.

Consider the cigar factories. In other countries, there are companies that encourage visits and offer cigars to their visitors in order to promote their brands and mold devotees. The number of cigar factories in Cuba that are open to visitors varies from about 1-4. Additionally, you must pay to enter the factories, and there are no cigars offered. I cannot explain this other than to say that the cigar manufacturing is done by a different company than the one that markets the cigars, and perhaps that separation is the reason.

Regardless, visitors to the factories are very happy to be able to see the production of these legendary cigars and do have the opportunity to purchase them in a gift shop at the factory. With an increase in visitors, Cuba’s hotels are at capacity. The country has been building hotels, though mostly at the beaches, and will need to continue to expand its capacity if visitors continue to increase in number.


As of now, little has changed in the policies of Cuba or the United States. Excitement is high among both visitors and the Cuban people. It is slightly easier now for Americans to visit Cuba through organized trips for educational purposes, but bookings for such trips are filling quickly with all providers and are sometimes difficult to secure.

It is unclear how and when Cuba will change, but there is no question that the island is intriguing to Americans. And, indeed, for non-United-States nationals, the urgency to visit is also strong.


For more information about trips
led by me or organized by ECC, visit


This article was published in the Cigar Journal Autumn Edition 2015. Read more

Colin Ganley worked for Cigar Journal from 2007 to 2015 and now makes his home in Nicaragua where he heads up Cigar Tourism and Twin Engine Coffee. He ist he author of Le Snob: Cigars (2011). He also writes for cigar publications around the world, including Cigar Snob magazine, and runs the website cigarresearch.com, which is devoted to his research and writing on cigars. He developed a system for rating and reviewing cigars called the Independent Cigar Rating System (ICRS), which has been adopted by several independent reviewers and websites.


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